Muslim Friendly Indochina Blog Contest Winner Noor Sham a.k.a. Ceklong treks through memory lane in Ho Chi Minh City with her family.
For the last couple of years, AirAsia has been the airline of our choice. When planning our family holiday, we would check out AirAsia destinations first. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, seemed like a good choice since no one in the family has been there.
Now that the twins are a little older, they are quite good at hiding their excitement about the trip. We had lunch on the flight–the new improved menu is commendable and we finished our pre-booked meal in a few minutes.
It was still drizzling as we stepped out of Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As soon as our taxi hit the road, we found the streets full of motorcycles. I have never seen so many motorcycles in any other cities. Most riders had large flapping plastic raincoats that covered the front of the motorcycle and the back piece was placed over any goods (if any).
Catina Hotel was a small 4-star hotel sharing the street with stores such as Gucci, Omega, Esprit, Louis Vuitton, Milano and Gloria Jeans. Most stores in the area put up Christmas decorations–lit-up trees and baubles hanging from the ceiling. There were many stores selling beautiful paintings in various styles. A few stores sold lovely lacquer wares and clothing items. There were many motorcycles crowding the street parallel to Dong Khoi. I couldn’t tell if there was some kind of celebration or procession, but it was apparent that the people were out on the streets for something. Some adults donned Santa’s red and white hats while little children put on Santa’s full costume, minus the white beard, of course.
District 1 is the heart beat of Ho Chi Minh City and the area surrounding Dong Khoi street is the happening part of town. Some of the more affluent hotels in this area are the Sheraton, Continental, Caravelle and the Rex. There are a few more like the Oscar Saigon and the Grand Hotel. The western influence in this country is clearly visible in its architecture, if not in the culture. The Notre Dame Church and National Theatre are examples of reminiscence of this past era.
Food and getting around
Our hotel was close to the mosque and also several halal restaurants namely the Halal@Saigon, D’Nyonya Delights, Bombay Restaurant (Indian) and Pasha Restaurant (Turkish).
Our favourite was the Turkish restaurant, Pasha. The mixed grill and sliced roasted lamb were full of flavour and the meat was extremely tender. The Halal@Saigon Restaurant was a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The small place was crowded and thus service was rather slow, but the food was quite good and reasonably priced. The crunchy stir-fried flower was a new dining experience for us.
At D’Nyonya Delights, familiar dishes like fried koay teow was available. The Bombay Restaurant served typical Indian food such as curry, biryani and masala. All the mentioned restaurants were on the same street (Dong Du Street in District 1) and they served decent halal food. It’s a matter of preference and taste that we went to Pasha Restaurant and Halal@Saigon more than once.
Taxi fares may be paid in VND or USD, but be prepared to be grossly overcharged even if it’s metered. To be on the safe side, agree on the fare first before boarding the vehicle.
The tour guide, Mr. Long arrived as agreed, at 8 am. Further along the street, another family of three from Tasmania joined the tour. The streets of Saigon depicted a familiar Asian setting with sidewalk food stalls and varieties of merchandise by the roadside.
We reached the highway after nearly half an hour going through the outskirts of the city. The highway was only a year old with a speed limit of 100 km/h. The scenery was a very familiar one–rice fields on both sides with patches of sugar cane plants and banana trees. Just before 9.30am, we made a 20-minute stop at a lovely, clean and well-kept rest area. It was landscaped with a tropical village setting, planted with coconut trees, frangipani plants and also present were two huge ducks posing for tourists.
The boat trip started from a jetty in My Tho. There were many blue boats of varying sizes eagerly waiting for tourists. The Mekong River, some 4800km long is very wide with murky water and muddy banks. The river stretches across five countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where it meets the sea. Our boat travelled upstream.
Our first stop was Unicorn Island where tea was served with honey (from the nectar of longan flowers) and calamansi or limau kasturi. Tidbits consisting of banana crisps, peanut brittle and crystallized ginger were also served and duly consumed. On a nearby table, bottles of several sizes containing snakes, geckos and scorpions were displayed. The liquid in which these creepy crawlies were preserved is taken as an aphrodisiac for men. The boys got the chance to snap photos with a python wrapped around their necks. I must admit that I am not very fond of reptiles even though they often turn up at our doorstep at home.
The area was more like an orchard, planted with fruit trees such as longan, mangosteen, water apples (jambu air), pomelo and dragon fruit cactus. We walked on to another shed to sample local fruits like ciku, banana, longan and pineapples. A group of four entertained us with folk music and songs. Another hut further along the route made coconut candies plus a few other types of fruit candies.
Dr. (Mrs) Pidmore, the twins and I got into a dingy boat (sampan) while the rest of the men went in another. A lady in the front and a man at the back of the sampan rowed the boat along the narrow river lined with nipah or sea coconut palms. It was low tide and the river was congested with similar sampans making their way back and forth ferrying tourists. Small mudskippers were spotted along the riverbanks.
The sampan ride brought back poignant memories of my childhood–the occasional little adventure I had with my neighbours Kak Nah and Kak Pah on the river in front of mum’s house. It was sure a long way to venture to re-live one’s younger days, but it was good for the two boys who had never been on an actual sampan.